what causes the musical nature of English?

Paul M   Thursday, June 24, 2004, 04:20 GMT
Languages sound different to each other.
Anyone can distinguish Swedish from Japanese even if he doesn't know either language.

Yes, the phonemes are different... but.. what is the intuitive "reason" behind of the stress timed nature of English speech. (Yes, it's a debatable fact, but English certainly impose different timing on different syllables unlike my native tongue)

Can someone explain to me (in jargon-free expressioins) why English is musical and has the stressed and unstressed parts in a speech.

I know some words (content words) are more important than the rest (fuctional words) but I can't see why the functional words are have to be squeezed into a mumble.. There has to be some kind of linguistic or psychological reason for that... I mean, if it wasn't needed, it wouldn't have existed..

Is it because English words are generally longer, so that the less importatnt words are accoustically minimized to make the language more efficient?

Is it something to do with the grammatical structure where intonations (sentence stress) has a grammatical role to substitute missing suffixes or something..

Or is it necesssary (or complementary) to have the rise and fall during speech to generate the just right consonants and vowels..

why, oh why..
Mi5 Mick   Thursday, June 24, 2004, 06:35 GMT
That's like asking why does Cantonese use tones (rising, falling, etc) to distinguish different words but not clear-cut consonants/vowels to the Westerner's ear. Or why are syllables in French so evenly distributed unlike English? Why do Italians roll their Rs and so on?
Damian   Thursday, June 24, 2004, 20:35 GMT
Surely English is not the only language in which the syllable stress determines the meaning of the word and whether it's a noun or an adjective for instance? Example: Process
Paul M   Friday, June 25, 2004, 02:30 GMT
I know I know.. and I'm not just talking about English alone.
I think I asked the question in not-what-I-intended manner.
I didn't mean to offend anyone..
I apologise for that, let me try again.

But surely there has to be a pattern.
Every aspect of a language is somehow related to other aspect in the particular language, I believe.Whether it's for linguistical reasons or historical reasons for the matter.

Why is so wrong to ask the reasons for them all.
There has to be a reason why cantonese use tones and I wouldn't be surprised if it's somehow related to the fact that there is not clear-cut consonants/vowels.

I think if a language's grammar structure is such such, then the language tends to have such such rhythmical nature that you can only find in languages with that particular grammatical umm.. structure. ^^;

These sort of things, I think, are naturally adapted to natives and they may consciously/unconsciously know why, whether it's implicit or explicit in its nature. I think it's natural because it fits into the language like a zigsaw puzzle.. You can't solve the puzzle if all the pieces are shaped arbitrarily.
But it's not so natural to the non-natives like me because I've never seen that particularaly shaped piece and that's why I asked it..

You've seen the puzzle, you've solved the puzzle and know how they fit into each other to reveal the grand scale of the English language..

I know why Koreans have difficulties in some areas when they try to learn English, because I can see that the pieces are differently shaped and people just don't realise it.. I think it would help for me to visualise the particular piece of the puzzle inside of my head if I somehow understands why it's so natural to the natives..

And one of the difficult pieces is the rhythm. I can make a wild guess why, but I just have too fewer pieces to do it. :(
Mi5 Mick   Friday, June 25, 2004, 11:23 GMT
It's possible that this stressed and unstressed business is partly due to the simplification of pronunciation. It's like that non-rhotic aspect you've been talking about in Australian English: instead of pronouncing an R each time, a longer vowel in its place is considered easier to produce consistly by its speakers. Another example is in French, where consonants that were once pronounced have been muted leaving an open vowel sound. (e.g. forest-forêt where the t is no longer pronounced) Many simplifications of Latin roots like this have created many é, è sound endings in French, probably perceived as most economical by its speakers.

Another thing to consider is the written language that can influence its speakers. E.g. New world colonists may have only had written language as a benchmark standard far away from the home country, and consequently they had little of it spoken "authentically" for reference. So this lack of access to the spoken language may account for exaggerations in pronunciation for distinguishing nuances in vowels.

One more thing I can think of is the socio-stylistic and cultural-stylistic implications which means for example, rolling of the Rs is considered by a group of speakers as noble... or say, smoothing and diphthongisation of vowels is more desirable than snappy ones.
Jarec   Friday, June 25, 2004, 14:18 GMT
Are you sure Damian with the word "process"? As far as I know both verb and noun have stress on the first syllable. The same holds for "processed".
Me   Sunday, June 27, 2004, 04:49 GMT
can you please process that request.
the process is complicated.

In some accents the two are the same, in some they're not with 'pro' sounding like 'go' and/or 'not'.
Orion   Sunday, June 27, 2004, 05:15 GMT
Yes. In my dialect (mid-western American), both
"Can you please process that request" and "the process is completed"
are pronounced with the stress on the first syllable. PROcess. And most people hereabouts pronounce it similar to 'praw-cess' or 'prah-cess'.

I would be inclined to pronounce it proCESS only when using it to replace 'proceed'.

"The parade proCESSed down the street" instead of "The parade proceeded down the street."

However, using process in that manner sounds _very_ stilted and antiquated. Some people probably wouldn't understand what you meant.

Note that the noun 'procession' (proCESSion) is used quite commonly. Just that particular verb use has mostly died out here.
Damian   Sunday, June 27, 2004, 06:12 GMT
I just thought of the word "process" as it was the first that came into my head. The stress is always on the first syllable here as well but I thought it was on the last syllable when it mean to proceed..as in "they began to pro'CESS down the street". Proceed is much more commonly used anyway.

There is a distinct difference between the UK and the US pronunciation of 'process though...usually pronunciation ..stress on first syllable. In the UK: 'pr-Ou-cess US: 'pr-o-cess as you indicated.
Jim   Sunday, June 27, 2004, 17:06 GMT
Hi Paul

I'm a short-time lurker of antimoon, and have found more than I can digest at one sitting. So I'm dipping my toe in the water by replying to your question. I hope my reply isn't too long-winded.

Until I read your question, I'd never thought of a generic English musicality. Sure, there are accents of English that I would say have a pronounced musicality (no pun). Welsh and Irish accents are definitely at the top of my list.

But, just the same, there are accents with the barest minimum of musicality; monotone pronunciations. I won't mention specifics because they would only be my perception and likely to be disputed at length by others.
I suppose compared with other languages, English has a musicality.

So, to the actual words used...

'English' as a single language today has its roots in many other languages - perhaps more than the roots of any other modern language.
In a single English conversation you might hear words whose origins are Latin, Greek, French, Scandinavian, German, Indian, Chinese, and more. There might be several words for one meaning, each derived from a different language. And each word comes with baggage (call it linguistic psychology, if you prefer) that defines how it may be used.

Stereotype examples are those from the ancient Latin and Germanic ("Anglo-Saxon") languages. A person who chooses to use the Latin versions, consciously or not, tends to sound "educated", whilst one who uses the Anglo-Saxon versions tends to not sound "educated". Note the use of """ there!

And it's true that most "obscene" or emotive words are AngloSaxon-ish, whilst the Latin-ish equivalents are not. A few examples: f**k/copulate, rain/precipitation, king/sovereign, little/diminutive.
You could probably think of more examples. And each of those examples has its own musicality, wouldn't you agree?

Back to the point, though. English has so many origins, and is developing and growing as we speak. It therefore could have a greater variety of expression than most other modern languages.

The way each word is spoken in English is affected by all of the original languages. A French word, for example, is not pronounced in the same way that the French might pronounce it, but has something of a Germanic tinge to it, and vice versa. It's true for other language origins, too.

An example of that: the French word "amusement" looks identical to the English word, but in English it is pronounced differently.
Amoozmon' in French becomes amyoozm'nt in British English.

I'm not sure that all English words are shorter than any other language's equivalent. I'm certain that English sentences are generally much shorter than some other languages' equivalents.
But there are so many different ways of saying the same thing in English that a sentence could be made longer by using different words, without changing the meaning. Haha! That could be called 'the bullshit factor'.

"I'm sitting on the fence about that" might be "I can't make my mind up yet" or "At this time, I find myself incapable of a categorical refutation of, or agreement with, that particular statement as it has been made to me."

I've taken a long time to reach the point I hinted at before (apologies for that), so briefly:
English has a musicality because:
Linguistically, English language has so many origins and each origin has linguistically affected the whole language.
Psychologically, the English people have so many origins and each origin has affected the whole population (whether they know it or not).

Because of these two things, the linguistics and psychology of English language and people have become more than the individual linguistics and psychology of the original source languages and peoples.
I know that's a generalization, but generally it is true.

I deliberately haven't mentioned individual dialects of English, because I would be walking into a minefield. But I believe that each slightly different dialect of English comes with a slightly different psychology.

But despite all these different dialects and psychologies, each one understands the other. If there is any difficulty in understanding, it's fairly easy to overcome, unless a person holds onto a particular kind of prejudicial sense of localized superiority, nationality, or whatever you choose to call it.
It saddens me to say that there are those of my fellow countrymen who regard other "non-British" dialects of English as inherently inferior to their own. That's particularly true for the United States version of English. If it wasn't such a disgusting attitude, it would be funny.
It probably is, funny anyway.
British English continues to change, and be affected by other dialects of English - including United States English - whether some Brits like it or not.

English might not be the language that most people in the world speak (isn't that Chinese?).

But English is spoken more widely, in more countries, than any other language in the history of time. And I don't think that's because of the British Empire, or whatever. I think it's because of the way that English has become what it is today, both linguistically and psychologically.
But then I am probably biased, being English. So it's only my opinion (smile).

I hope that helps!
Jarec   Sunday, June 27, 2004, 20:47 GMT
You're right.
pro'cess [verb] made from pro'cession has stress on the second syllable
but 'process [verb+noun] has stress on the first syllable
I checked it in my dictionary.